Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Can Museums Help Make Cities More Intelligent?

“Smart cities” is a big topic now. How big? Smart Planet recently reported that investment in smart city infrastructure will hit $108 billion by 2020.


Yah, that’s big.


What makes a city “smart?” Smart Planet defines it as "the integration of technology into a strategic approach to sustainability, citizen well-being, and economic development." The connections and integration between a city's parts are what can make it an intelligent system of systems. Intelligent use of data ranges from citizens reporting potholes, so the city doesn’t have to rely on crews roving the streets to find and fix them, to using data on peoples’ use of transportation to design walkable neighborhoods and encourage active lifestyles.

I spent Monday in the grand central atrium of the National Building Museum, listening to awesome speakers explore the potential for such systems of ubiquitous, networked data to transform the urban landscape.

The primary orchestrators of the Intelligent Cities project at NBM are Scott Kratz, vice president for education, and curator Susan Piedmont-Palladino. Susan identified museums’ roles in urban design as provoking active curiosity and increasing “urban literacy,” thereby inspiring people to take action. 

Here are some interesting nuggets I took away from the day:


Access to data can shift power to the people
Many speakers acknowledged the troubling potential for governments to monitor (and misuse) such rich troves of data on peoples’ movement and activities. However, Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, pointed out that the “ground up” use of technology enables citizens to band together to prevent government abuse. As an example of ground up citizen tech, she pointed to to Map Kibera, which enables Nairobi slum dwellers (aka “informal occupants”) to create a digital map of the informal economy and residential patterns. Prior to this, the Kenyan government did not recognize or gather data on the slum, depriving its residents of political recognition and services. What issues in your museum’s community might benefit from citizen use of data, and how might a museum help people access and interpret this information?


The future of digital data rights
Caesar McDowell, professor of the Practice of Community Development at MIT, approached data privacy from another angle, proposing creating a Personal Digital Commons, controlling the rights that automatically accrue to data collected via social media. You could apply one of four licenses to the data collected by Facebook, LinkedIn and their ilk: free use; limited negotiated use; collective community use (use of aggregated data for community benefit); or no use. What data does your museum collect from users of your digital platforms, and what options do you give them for controlling how you use this information?


How digital devices influence use of public space
I’ve heard many folks angst over how the use of smart phones, tablets etc. in museums will affect the experience. Do we want to encourage or discourage the connected visitor? If future visitors are going to be constantly connected to friends and family over the internet, should this influence how we design our space? Keith Hampton, assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communications at UPenn presented some research that begins to illuminate these questions. For example, his researchers, after obsessively stalking and observing wireless users in a variety of settings, found that 10% of the people they observed engaged in extended interactions with strangers, which compares favorably with people not using internet-connected devices. (And contrasting with people listening to iPods, who never, not once, interacted with anybody.) At the neighborhood level, social technologies do lead to a greater number of social ties over time. This effect is greatest in communities already predisposed to form social ties but not, interestingly, tied to socio-economic levels. Keith concludes (reassuringly, for museums) that the more diverse and extensive the use of new technology, the more diverse and extensive the use of public space. If you want to learn more about Keith's research, you can listen to an interview or purchase access to his article The Social Life of Wireless Urban Spaces: Internet Use, Social Networks, and the Public Realm from the Wiley Online Library.


For more on the ideas presented at the Intelligent Cities Forum see this blog post at Embarq. And check out the National Building Museum’s website where you can watch the recorded webcast of the forum , learn more about the Intelligent Cities initiative, and order the book that summarizes the project content.

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